What is nonviolence?

by JMeier on June 2, 2011

I was in high school when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington. I would have loved to take off for Alabama that summer, marching and helping with voter registration, but that didn’t go over so well with my parents. Instead I stayed home and helped with the family business. However, the vision of nonviolence stayed with me. At the time, it was, for me, about “us” the good people against “them” those Southerners who dared to turn the dogs and the fire hoses on undeserving innocents. I didn’t have any desire to get a gun and start shooting “bad” people, but I did want to stomp out the evil I saw every night on TV. Marches and demonstrations sounded like a good way to do that. It all seemed like a big adventure. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that nonviolence is about a lot more than marches, demonstrations and voter registration. At that time I had no concept of the full depth of nonviolence.

In college I started to glimpse a deeper vision. For instance, I read Thich Nhat Hanh who says, “Love is the essence (the core, the heart) of Nonviolence.”

On one level that made it sound easy. I just had to be a loving person. But it also opened up many more questions. What is love? How can we possibly love our enemies when they cause us so much pain?

Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s sermon on peace:

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you.” MLK

I don’t think I ever seriously considered what might happen to me, physically or emotionally, if I really did go down to Alabama that summer. I never seriously thought about what that commitment would have meant to me or what it meant to MLK and his followers who were there. To this day, I’m not sure of my capacity to love in the way MLK describes it. But I’m also appalled at the immense violence of our world today. There has to be a way for each of us to dig deeply into our hearts and find maybe just an inkling of MLK’s spirit. If each of us dug out just a tiny bit of the love that MLK speaks of, then maybe, just maybe, we could live a little lighter on this earth. But I’m not naive. I’m not some pie-in-the-sky new-ager. I’m no longer that teenager sitting in suburbia thinking about easy adventure. I have a little more grounding in the blood, guts, and gore of this world.

My intention is to write blog entries over the next year on the subject of Living a Nonviolent Life. My intention is to explore what nonviolence really means in my interior world, in my life, and in the larger world. I will explore the following questions and much more:

What does it mean to live a nonviolent life?

What is my own capacity for violence?

Is it possible to bring nonviolence into my whole life including both my internal world and my external actions?

Given all the dangers on this planet, is nonviolence even desirable?

Violence is a big part of the natural world, why wouldn’t it be part of the human world?

Next week: Violence and Nonviolence

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